“You’re not going in there alone, Kusarel.”
Elkeri and Kusarel stood outside the entrance to Kusarel’s home. In the distance, the excited babbling of gryphons in the town center could be heard. Yet there was no hint of joy in either Kusarel or her friend, both hunched next to each other with drooping ears.
“I have to. This is family business. You can’t interfere.” Kusarel felt horrible for sounding so cold, but it was the truth and there was no use skirting around it.
Elkeri let out a low hiss and whipped her with her tail. “You’re joking, right? I’ve known you all my life. You really think I’m going to abandon you now?”
Lowering her head, Kusarel traced the stones beneath her claws, winding her talons along the edges in an effort to calm herself. “If I drag non-family into this, mother will be furious. And I don’t want to make her mad.”
“Don’t want to make her mad? Are you crazy? She’s going to kill you! Why do you care if she’s angry or not?”
A small lump formed in her throat, but she did her best to push it down as she focused on the motion of her talons. “Maybe she won’t actually cull me. She might just tell me to stay in the town, and the rest of the family goes to the palace. So…I want to stay on her good side.”
There was a pause. Kusarel feared her friend would whip her again and roar at her for being so stupid, so naive. She deserved it, after all. That horrible nagging voice whispered it to her, that she was being wishful and she knew it. But she couldn’t help but cling to that hope: The hope that maybe, just maybe, her mother would show mercy and let her live.
Instead, Elkeri placed a claw over Kusarel’s, stilling her fidgeting. She looked up and saw her face, Elkeri’s eyes brimming with a nauseating mix of sympathy, pity, and disbelief.
“You really want your mother’s acceptance, even now.” She shook her head and gave a chuckle, but there was no warmth in it at all. With a nuzzle, she stepped back and stretched her wings. “All right, I’ll leave you alone for now. But I’m staying close by in case things go wrong.”
And they will, were the unspoken words that flitted between them. Kusarel saw the determination on her friend’s face, the furrowed brows and glittering eyes, and her eyes landed on those towering horns. She couldn’t help but think how much damage those natural weapons could do, if Elkeri decided to fight with the intention to maim.
“Please don’t do anything stupid, Elkeri.”
“No promises, sorry.” And with that, Elkeri scurried into the space between the Silversky den and the neighboring buildings, blending into the shadows. Kusarel thought she could just barely make her out crouched underneath one of the windows, probably with the intention of watching. She felt a deep shudder pass through her whole body, imagining Salaki and Elkeri screaming and clawing at each other like hawks battling over territory. Please, please don’t let anyone get hurt. Let everyone get out of this alive.
With that looming thought, she brushed aside the entrance curtains and stepped into her den. The living room greeted her with its towering ceiling, lit candles dangling from the chandelier. Normally the dancing flames filled her with joy, but now they seemed to flicker and sway in a jerky, ominous way, like they were searching for a new sacrifice to set aflame.
Even the plush seating, filled with the finest wool, suddenly seemed scratchy and prickly against her feathers as she sat down. She fanned her wings, stretching them out as far as she could as an intense feeling of claustrophobia smothered her. With her beak wide open, she took in juddering breaths as her lungs clamped up.
I need to get out of here. I can’t stay here. I don’t want to die.
Please, I don’t want to die.
At that moment, her mother stepped into the room.
Salaki had always been large, even for a female gryphon, but now it was like she was in the presence of a giant. No matter where she looked, her mother was there, blocking the exit and any hope she had of escape.
“Kusarel.” Her mother stopped for a second, then cleared her throat. “You must know why I summoned you here.”
Of course she knew why; yet she couldn’t make herself say the words, couldn’t make them become real. “I…I don’t know. I’m not sure.” She winced at her voice, weak and trembling and filled with the sort of hope expected from a young, gullible cub.
Salaki didn’t avert her gaze, keeping those perfectly hard, expressionless eyes locked right on Kusarel. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but it has to be done. You…” She stuttered and cleared her throat again. “You are a blemish on the family name. We can’t let you live, with our family attaining the greatest possible standing. You have to be culled now.”
The words rang through her ears, burying deep inside her brain like a slippery parasite. It took her a few moments to feel them settle in, writhing around and tearing at her mind as animalistic fear dripped through her whole body. She felt a sudden bump in the back of her hindleg–whipping her head back, she saw the wall directly behind her. She must have been backing up without realizing it, that primitive part of her brain screeching at her to flee and live.
I have to speak, have to say something, have to convince her…
She tried to string something coherent together, but everything was all jumbled together in one giant block of panic.
Speak Kusarel, speak!
“M-maybe I can live here. In secret,” she managed to stammer, though the thought of never seeing Xaiel again filled her with a deep pain that almost equaled her terror. Immediately she knew these were the wrong words as her mother’s eyes dilated, ears snapping back.
“Absolutely not! The townsfolk here will obviously know you are alive, and word could get back to the Empress. Our status would be in jeopardy.” Salaki flourished her wings and stretched up to her full height, glowering down at her daughter. “Don’t you dare be so selfish. If you have ANY respect for me or the family, you will accept what needs to be done. If you do not, you will be no child of mine!”
Those harsh words forced Kusarel’s mind back into intelligible thought. Aren’t I already no child of yours? Didn’t you disown me? You told the Empress I don’t exist. Now rage began to bubble up from someplace dark and deep, the place she kept firmly locked down all her life. What am I to you? Do I even matter? Am I just a tool for the family?
But that wasblasphemy, pure and utter blasphemy. She couldn’t let herself think like that, even now. With the power of years of habit, she squished down all those horrible, ungrateful thoughts and the blooming fury that rode alongside them. Maybe she really does love you, Kusarel. Maybe she still considers you to be her child, even if she has to cull you. Do you want to ruin that? She’s your mom.
I just want her to love me.
And so Kusarel bowed her head and said, “I understand.”
She lowered herself to the ground, pinning her wings against her sides and stretching her neck and head far out, exposing them for an easy kill in the proper position for a culling. Squeezing her eyes shut, she breathed in deeply and tried to keep herself from trembling, praying her mother would do this so rapidly she wouldn’t even know what happened.
Seconds stretched by as she sat in total darkness, waiting for her mother to take action. More and more time passed, but there was nothing, not even the sound of her mother moving forward for the kill. She couldn’t bear it any longer and forced her eyes open. Her mother just stood in front of her with an outstretched claw, like she had stopped mid-strike, and a very strange expression on her face, as though something wasn’t quite processing.
“Your grandfather’s feathers!”
Kusarel just blinked, wondering if perhaps she had gone insane from the terror and hadn’t heard her mother correctly. “What did you say?”
Salaki scurried over to the cabinet against the wall that stored all of the family’s treasures. Flinging open the doors, she cupped her claws around a handful of ancient silver feathers and walked over to Kusarel. She winced as her mother’s talons loomed close, but she simply tucked the feathers behind her ears.
“There. So you’ll be led to our family in the afterlife.”
Now that was strange. Kusarel managed to squeak out, “But I thought you didn’t believe in that, mother? You told me that was a silly superstition for low gryphons.”
“Yes, well, better to be safe. Right, dear?” Something about her voice wasn’t quite right. It seemed a bit too stretched or high-pitched, not like her mother’s usual deep rumble. “Oh, and of course you need your chicken plushie.”
Salaki darted out of the living room and into Kusarel’s bedroom. A few seconds later she returned with a beaten, well-loved stuffed chicken curled tightly in her tail. She lowered it gently by Kusarel’s side and snuggled it up next to her. “You always loved your chicken.”
“I don’t need my chicken plushie, mother.” Can she tell I’m that scared? What’s going on? Why’s she stalling like this?
“Of course you do. That’s not an option.” Salaki clucked her tongue and looked off into the distance. Maybe it was just the flickering from the candles, but her eyes looked rather watery. “What else…oh, you love eel pie. You should have some as a last meal.”
Now Kusarel felt worry settle inside her, a more insidious feeling than the base fear from before. “Don’t you need to get back to the Empress? I don’t understand.”
Her mother didn’t appear to hear her and rattled on in that thin voice, “But the eel pie is cold, and Yatalo normally would heat it for us, but he’s back at the plaza and I can’t go back there, not until…but the eel pie is cold and you don’t like it cold.”
“Mother, it’s ok. It’s not a big deal.”
Something snapped in her mother’s eyes, breaking the mask she had always worn. Tears cascaded down her beak and flooded her feathers as she broke out in sobs, covering her face with her claws. “No, it’s not ok. It has to be the best eel pie for you.”
Kusarel’s beak dropped open as she watched her mother crumble. Salaki sat hunched over on the ground, wrapping her wings around herself as she rocked back and forth while sobbing. Suddenly, she didn’t look like her mother, the battle gryphon, but a scared cub that seemed horribly lost and trapped.
Is this…what was under her mask the whole time? She’s been terrified?
The thought seemed ludicrous to her, but there was her mother in a broken-down wreck. Kusarel managed to heave herself up and inched toward Salaki, having no idea what to do or how to approach her mom in this state.
Before she could make her beak work properly, another figure stepped into the room. Both of them turned to look, Salaki blinking back more tears as she stared with bleary eyes.
“Mother, I’ll cull her. Please go back to the Empress.”
The air seemed to evaporate from the room for a moment. The two of them could only gaze at Xaiel in confusion.
“No, Xaiel. I’m the mother…I should…” Salaki couldn’t finish her words before she choked on her sobs, not able to look either of them in the eye.
“But the Empress chose me specifically. It’s my duty and responsibility to keep the family name clean now,” Xaiel said in a voice that was both soothing, yet forceful.
Her mother’s chest rose and fell in heavy heaves as Xaiel helped her off the ground, letting her lean against him. “I’ll do it. Get out of the den and go calm down, then head back to the plaza. I’ll meet you there when it’s done.”
Salaki could only nod as she stumbled toward the entrance with the help of her son.
“Wait,” she stuttered, turning toward Kusarel. “Come here.”
Kusarel tentatively walked forward, standing next to her mother. Salaki threw her wings around her and pulled her in, nestling Kusarel against her chest, wet with tears. She couldn’t so much as wiggle in her mother’s embrace, hugged more tightly than she could ever remember from her past.
“I love you, Kusarel,” she whispered.
And then Salaki pushed away and tottered to the entrance. She looked back once, locking glistening eyes with her daughter, and Kusarel saw all the fear and regret and overwhelming sorrow lurking there. She wondered if her mother would ever be able to put her stoic facade on again, or if it was gone for good, permanently smashed by this moment.
Her mother ripped away her gaze and slipped past the curtain, tail slithering behind her until it too disappeared. She was gone.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”